To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

A Letter to David McAllester 1968 on the Beginnings of Total Translation

please note. a list of postings after january 12, 2012 can be found here

Box 117
Steamburg, N.Y. 14783
July 23, 1968

Dear Dave –

            It’s being a very good summer here in all ways, & I’m certainly getting a much clearer picture of the possibilities & limits of carrying on this kind of work on the spot – of my doing it, that is.  The best results so far are with Dick Johnny John – who’s to be my Indian “father” – & that because he’s a natural translator himself & has become involved personally in the recording, transcription & translation of the songs & other materials.  I think there’s a sense too that the older men in their 60s & 70s have left the younger ones like Dick (he’s about 54) in a tight position, that the ceremonies etc. are dying with them, & that he wants very much to hold onto those for himself & his sons.  While people here are generally aware of that problem, the procedure has always been for each generation to pick up the longhouse songs with very little actual teaching, & even if there’s now a changed situation in the men’s growing inability to commit these things easily to memory, loss of Seneca as a 1st language, etc., they postpone the necessary assistance or the work of putting much of it on tape.  And there’s of course the “sacred-secret” connection you spoke of with relation to Frank Mitchell, still very strong here...& applied within the group (I’d guess) as well as towards us outsiders.
            For that last reason too I’ve gone very easy about intruding too much into the sacred areas, reassuring myself that my 1st concern this summer is with technique rather than substance.  In some ways too I find the secular music (woman’s dance songs, etc.) the most exciting fact for the moment, because it’s a really ongoing & creative form, however light the words & vocables may be in contrast to the medicine ceremonies, etc.  The principal singers are very prolific & responsive to some of the influences & events we have in common.  They all have tape recorders, for example, & one of them at least – Avery Jimerson  -- uses them in the process of composition.  He has a whole array of equipments that makes his diningroom look like a professional recording studio: 3 tape recorders, 2 large amplifiers, 2 standing studio mikes, etc.  After a song comes to him & he has the basic form of it set, he plays the lead (on waterdrum) onto a tape, then accompnaies himself with horn rattle as chorus, getting the two voices onto a single tape, so as to simulate an actual performance by the Singing Society.  He can then listen & (he says) begin to cut away the parts that aren’t needed or readjust the vocables until the piece feels good enough to present to the group, who will then be able to suggest further (but generally more limited) modifications.  He puts a big emphasis on technique in that sense, & I’m  trying now to get him to save his discards for me, so that I can get some notion of how the songs in fact develop – a little bonus that this use of contemporary technology now makes possible.
            The subject matter of the songs that use words (most don’t) is sometimes also of interest in terms of its modernness, e.g. a very popular song now going the rounds (the songmaker is Johnson Jimerson of Newton) runs roughly like this [in translation]:

                        Screw it
                        We’ll just have to help
                        these longhaired boys along
                        We’ll sing their song
                        (ga-a-no-weya    heya)
                        yah-yah-yah   yah-yah
                        That’s what it says
                        We’re all becoming INDIAN BEATLES
                        hey heya yoooh

reminiscent of a song from the 20s by Chauncey Johnny John (“Cold Voice”) that says “I can make songs like the colored people do,” then runs in a strong of complicated vocables to the tune of pretty redwing.  There are also a number of social-protest songs about Kinzua, etc., that I’ve recorded, & a number of set pieces in praise of the Allegany singers or the longhouse religion, some surviving woman’s dance songs in praise of the creator, etc.  I’ve mentioned the possibility of their going to Wesleyan [to perform there], & I think they can work it out, although the problem for them is that they have jobs & find it difficult to get away.  A weekend arrangement for the group (say 3-4 singers) would probably be best, with (hopefully) one of them remaining for a longer period.  (Again Dick Johnny John would seem the most willing to talk about Seneca music in general, therefore the best bet from your point of view.)
            With all of this (including some sacred work Dick is starting to supply) I haven’t found time for much else; but the arrival of the new horse-songs has been the 2nd exciting fact for me, offering so much to work on.  I find the accumulative effect of what you’re doing even more astonishing than I’d expected, & very happy with some very good changes you’re getting into the wording of them, either from what I’d seen previously or pencilled into texts I hadn’t seen before.  For a while I didn’t know exactly where I’d come into it, until I began to play the tape of the 10th song against your version & was thrown back to the question of how to make the English sound correspond to the sound in Navaho, both as a matter of color (rhyme etc) & compression (number of words & syllables per phrase). I began to chant along with Frank & to work-in, not vocables but little words that would play off “woman” or “son” as his “e-hye-la” & “‘ana yeye ‘e” do off “’esdza shiye’.”  I don’t know if this is the “solution” in fact, but the results at least seem “real” to me, the one drawback being that the key words I’ve used in place of his vocables enter substantially into the meaning of the piece, my intrusion I’m afraid; & yet the structure as sound seems related to what he’s giving, & the three repeated words (one & none & gone), while they’re absorbed in the music & become almost “abstract,” feel to me like a relevant statement.  Anyway the chorus as I now have it reads:

            Go to her my son & one & go to her my son & one & one &
                 none & gone
            Go to her my son & one & go to her my son & one & one &
                 none & gone

 & the opening verses read:

             Because I was the boy raised in the dawn & one & go to her  
                 my son & one & one & none & gone
            & leaving from the house the bluestone home & gone & one
                 & go to her my son & one & one & none & gone
            & leaving from the house the shining home & one & go to
                 her my son & one & one & none & gone
            & leaving from the swollen house my breath has blown &
                 one & go to her my son & one & one & none & gone
            & leaving from the house the holy home & one & go to
                 her my son & one & one & none & gone

 Whether I change the key words into something else (i.e., English sounding vocables) or not, there’s no question that a “solution” of this kind would have been impossible without getting at Frank’s original; nor would what I’m doing in terms of compressing some of the later sections have been possible without your notes, etc.  In other words the collaboration, from my point of view, seems to be working so far.  As soon as I do a little more polishing I’ll be sending you a small tape on which I’ll read or chant my first versions of the 10th song, also a copy of it in writing.  The look of the rest of what you’ve sent has me very excited, particularly the way the vocables change & in the last songs seem to cut right into the middle of phrases.  What I’d like, as soon as possible, is tapes of some of the others, so I cn hear for myself what’s going on in them; maybe the first, the eleventh, & a coouple of the last ones.  I have no hope of matching the precision of what you’re doing, only of making a kind of poetic statement of my own that may possibly present in an immediate form some of the power & intelligence of the Navaho originals.
            It would be good too if I could somehow get together with you somewhere along the line, since I find those sessions of great value all around.  Would you possibly be able to  come out here for the Green Corn, which is likely this year to be falling out the last week of August.  It’s one of the good times to be out here & would afford you the chance to look in on the workings of the song-makers, etc.  If that seems possible we have lots of at least floor space in our house & would otherwise try to take care of you & Susan in royal style.  Let me know & keep me further informed as things progress.
            Again thanks for everything & for letting me share your workings, which I hold in the greatest admiration.


note.  It was through David McAllester, undoubtedly one of America’s great ethnomusicologists, that I was led into the “total translation” of a series of “horse songs” from the blessingway of the Navajo hatali Frank Mitchell.  The letter, above, was written early in my stay at the Allegany Seneca Reservation in New York State, where I was also engaged with Richard Johnny John in the translation of a range of Seneca (Iroquois) songs.  McAllester’s own translations of the aforesaid horse songs were quite as radical in their literalness & attention to Navajo syntax & expression as were my attempts to capture the oral dimensions of the original as a form of new performance.  I was of course entirely dependent on him in the process.
     My later essay on "total translation" can be found on & a fuller discussion by David Noriega at (J.R.)

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